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Top 10 Family Law Issues of 2010

Date:17 DEC 2010

Family lawyers, especially legal aid practitioners, had tough year in 2010. The two most read issues on the Newswatch website in 2010 were the knock-on effects of the Ministry of Justice's budget cuts and the family legal aid tender crisis.

The other issues that have made our list include the launch of the Family Justice and Munro Reviews, a new President of the Family Division and the Revised Private Law Programme.

Cases have been excluded from this list, but are contained in a separate top 10 cases of 2010 list.     


1. Ministry of Justice's budget cuts __________________________________________________________________

In October George Osborne announced in the government's spending review that the Ministry of Justice's budget would be cut by 23% from around £9.5 billion to £7 billion over four years.

The following month Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke unveiled the MoJ's programme to reform legal aid, including cutting funding for family private law cases. This month the Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly has confirmed that 93 magistrates' courts and 49 county courts in England and Wales are to be closed.

As a consequence to the cuts, the Bar Council and Law Society have warned that some of the most vulnerable in society could be prevented from accessing justice.


2. Legal aid tender                              __________________________________________________________________

In September the Legal Services Commission lost a Judicial Review brought by the Law Society over its terrible handling of the tender round of family legal aid contracts.

The Law Society brought the judicial review after the LSC tender round of family legal aid contracts cut the number of firms able to do family law work from 2,400 to 1,300.

The LSC has now extended the present family and combined family/housing contracts until 30 November 2011.


3. Family Justice Review launched __________________________________________________________________

In February David Norgrove was appointed as chair of the Family Justice Review which was set up to examine the effectiveness of the family justice system and the outcomes it delivers, and will make recommendations for reform. It's also looking at the best ways for courts to work with other agencies supporting children involved in the care system and how more contact rights can be provided for non-resident parents and grandparents.

A ‘call for evidence' was launched in June 2010, which ran until 30 September 2010.

An interim report will be released alongside the Munro Review in April 2011. This will then be subject to public consultation to inform the panel's final report, which will be published later in the year. One of the key recommendations is expected to be compulsory use of mediation in the family justice system.


4. Revised Private Law Programmes and Public Law Outline __________________________________________________________________

Before stepping down as President of the Family Division, Sir Mark Potter issued a Revised Private Law Programme Practice Direction, which came into effect on the 1 April. It outlines measures which will expedite court applications and the listing of the first hearing, sets out Cafcass safeguarding checks, and provides details of a new conciliation process.

Sir Mark also issued a Revised Public Law Outline which focuses on three key areas: reducing the burden of documentary requirements at issue; clarifying the Timetable for the Child principle, and; improving the PLO forms.


5. Media Bill received Royal Assent __________________________________________________________________

Part 2 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, received Royal Assent on the 8 April 2010 and contains provisions enabling wider the reporting of family proceedings.

The legislation was rushed through before the last Parliament was dissolved for the general election.

The reforms were opposed by many family lawyers due to concerns about the diminished protection provided to the welfare and privacy of the child, the undermining of key ethical principles underscoring the work of professionals such as doctors and social workers, and the delay and cost which the system would have to bear.


6. New President of the Family Division __________________________________________________________________

The start of the 2010 Easter legal term marked the beginning of Sir Nicholas Wall's Presidency of the Family Division as Sir Mark Potter retired after five years in the role. Reportedly, the then Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw challenged the appointment of Sir Nicholas because he criticised the previous Government over its policies, including the opening of the family courts to the media.


7. Munro Review                           __________________________________________________________________

The Government announced in June that it was commissioning Professor Eileen Munro from the London School of Economics to review child protection and social work in England.

Professor Munro published the first part of her review, Part One: A Systems Analysis, in October. She is due to submit her final report in April 2011.


8. Cafcass "not fit for purpose" __________________________________________________________________

In November the Commons Public Accounts Committee warned in a report that children's family court service, Cafcass, was "not fit for purpose". Ofsted's Annual Report for 2009/10 also found that Cafcass performed poorly.

However, some commentators have blamed the extent to which Cafcass was underfunded, especially immediately prior to the death of Peter Connelly which resulted in a surge of care applications. Moreover, in the last few weeks Cafcass has performed well in recent Ofsted inspections.


9. Government abandons plans to scrap child care proceedings fees __________________________________________________________________

The Government announced in October that court fees in child care proceedings will no longer be abolished in April 2011 as previously planned.

The Family Proceedings Fees Order came into force fees on 1 May 2008 and increased the court fees local authorities have to pay in care and supervision proceedings from £150 to £5,225 for a fully contested court case.

Several leading experts, including Lord Laming, have criticised the fees for detering local authorities from bringing care proceedings.


10. Official Solicitor unable to accept new children cases __________________________________________________________________

The Official Solicitor wrote to family law practitioners in May to inform them that his staff are unable to accept new instructions to act as a guardian ad litem or litigation friend without some delay.

The Official Solicitor said that there had been a marked increase in the number of public law children cases in which the Official Solicitor has been asked to act.